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  • Indian Revolutionaries Abroad: Revisiting their silent moments
  • Henrik Chetan Aspengren

In this article I relate Indian revolutionaries Virendranath Chattopadhyaya’s and Lala Har Dayal’s experiences of exile in Sweden to recent attempts to reformulate perspectives on Indian anti-colonial protest. These attempts have in various ways focused on the global dimension of Indian anti-colonialism, showing how displaced Indian intellectuals and activists connected outside the Subcontinent, to labour for the freedom of India. While appreciating the need for a fresh approach to studies of anti-colonial movements, this article issues a note of caution. Several recent studies treat life in exile as one of connectivity and creativity. In fact, connectivity becomes so important for these studies that it is only when in conversation with others sharing their objective that the views of Indian activists are included. Yet, many exiles lived long periods nearly or actually disconnected from the movement of which they wished to form a part. Such moments of silence are wishfully glossed over in the emerging literature. By way of revisiting Har Dayal and Chattopadhyaya in Sweden, I suggest that periods of silence or disconnection are important, simply because they existed, and formed a decisive part of the reality of exile. By omitting them, one risks romanticising exile, and subjecting experiences of displacement to academic programmatic concerns, however noble the cause.

A Reformulated Approach to Indian Anti-Colonial Protests

Indian historiography has to a large extent placed nationalist or anti-colonial protest within the geographical frame of South Asia, subaltern studies being no exception. Yet recent nonfiction and academic work show that far from being restricted by the borders of the Subcontinent, anti-colonial sentiment was articulated on a global scale. Or perhaps, better put, anti-colonialism was simultaneously pronounced by activists at home and abroad, in networks transcending territorial boundaries. Studies show that Indian and other Asian political activists displaced to various localities in Asia, Europe and North Africa formed zones of conversation through which visions of an end to European empire were conjured.1 Even in London, the heart of empire, Indian nationalist revolutionary ideas were flowing quite freely, at least until the First World War.2

Key concepts in this reformulated approach to Indian anti-colonial activism are: “Flow,” “circulation” and “connectivity,” emphasising continuous engagement and action. By highlighting connections across continents the studies successfully, geographically speaking, re-scale anti-colonial thought and action. This is promising in at least two ways. First, on a theoretical level, it unlocks nationalist and anti-colonial movements from what are often perceived as their locally situated struggles. It shows that resistance to colonialism could be analysed through a wider lens. Doing so enables us to move beyond analytical models of metropole and periphery, and toward less Eurocentric conceptions to which a variety of non-Western and Western settings and voices may contribute. Second, on an empirical level, it brings to our attention the actual working of the many and sometimes dense networks of anti-colonialism that connected various locations of the world, and to the circulation and continuous reformulation of political ideas and moral indignation within these networks.

Indeed, as recent studies show, the transnational networks set up by Indian anti-colonial activists were impressive. They provided opportunities for some of those displaced from India to fold into multi-ethnic and ideologically diverse settings of European and Asian capitals, and to become “interfaces and interpreters” in contacts between activists from various locations in Asia, Europe and North Africa.3 And, to some extent, this kind of “transborder circulations of people, concepts and fashions in the anticolonial age” that the networks made possible, “galvanized nationalist politics and inspired artistic and literary production.”4

The emphasis placed in recent studies on cosmopolitan connections of anti-colonial resistance makes for a compelling narrative, and the idea of border-defying revolutionaries, at home everywhere, was sometimes promoted by the activists themselves, as an inspiration to others. Yet, this article issues a note of caution. The strong focus on circulation of thought and action through global networks seems to give rise to a temptation to valorise exile as a condition of creativity and connectivity. Every new place where the activist set...

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